The rehabilitation of Jacques Derrida has begun.
With a new biography written by Benoit Peeters, the founder of “deconstruction” is being prepped for sainthood. An excerpt was published in The Daily Beast.
Why would this mild-mannered, timorous philosopher need to have his reputation rehabilitated? After all, his philosophical practice proposed nothing more than a new way to read texts.
Derrida gained fame and fortune by teaching a generation of academics how to deconstruct texts. He was not looking for hidden meanings but for traces of the demonic influence of Western metaphysics, ontology and phallogocentrism.
He was teaching students to purge texts of the elements that had conspired to corrupt the goodness that had existed in pre-Socratic philosophy.
What could be wrong with that?
As it happens, a lot.
In his Daily Beast article Peeters seems most interested in obfuscating the basis of Derrida’s philosophy. He tells a charming story of how Derrida discovered the concept of deconstruction while pondering Martin Heidegger’s notion of destruktion.
Apparently, Derrida believed that the French would find the concept more congenial if it contained a “con.” I will refrain from speculating about why this would be so. If I were to examine the many meanings of the French word, con, this would cease to be a “family” blog.
In his own way Derrida was a man of letters. Neither he nor his hagiographer Peeters seems to think that the world of letters impacts the real world.
Martin Heidegger would have begged to differ. When he was an academic and an administrator in 1930s Germany, Heidegger wholeheartedly supported Adolph Hitler. In his 1935 book, Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger declared that the best realization of his philosophy lay in Hitler’s Third Reich.
It wasn’t an ambiguous statement. After the war ended and the full horror of the Holocaust was revealed, Heidegger stubbornly refused to recant his Nazism. He explained that doing so would have meant disavowing his own philosophy.
When he published a new edition of the Introduction to Metaphysics in 1948 Heidegger kept in the line about the Third Reich.
After the war Heidegger was banned from teaching. Happily for him a group of French philosophers got together to get the ban lifted.
Derrida was not around at the time. By the time he burst on the scene, in the mid 1960s, most people had lost interest in the question.
The further removed everyone was the easier it was for Derrida to make Heideggerian thought, that is, disguised Nazi thought, respectable.
For those who continue to deny that Heidegger was a Nazi thinker, I recommend Richard Wolin’s masterful analysis in his book: The Politics of Being.
In his Daily Beast article Peeters says nothing about this aspect of Derrida’s career.
Whatever Derrida imagined, we have a fairly good idea of what Heidegger meant by destruktion. When you cut through the mumbo jumbo and the double talk, you discover that he was a great admirer of the street theatre practiced by the Nazi Stormtroopers who were led by Ernst Rohm.
If you can see through Derrida’s obfuscation you see that his effort to ferret out alien cultural elements in texts, the better to isolate and to neutralize them has an uncanny resemblance to the Nazi practice of isolating and neutralizing Jewish cultural influence in Germany and in the nations they occupied.
One is led to conclude, regrettably, that deconstruction is philosophy-speak for pogrom.
One might want to forgive Derrida. He seems not to have known what he was doing.
Yet, when Heidegger’s Nazi past was laid out in 1987 in Victor Farias’ book, Heidegger and Nazism, Derrida and his minions rushed to defend Heidegger. To their minds Heidegger’s Nazi allegiance was incidental to his contribution to the Western philosophy.
No one cared that Heidegger himself thought that there was no significant separation between his political practice and his philosophy.
It may have been pure happenstance, but the man who was most responsible for Derrida’s fame within the world of American academia, a Yale professor named Paul de Man had worked for a Nazi newspaper and had authored Nazi propaganda in occupied Belgium. For most of his career de Man had hidden this detail, but it was eventually discovered.
For a full account of the episode, I recommend David Lehman’s book, Signs of the Times.
Among de Man’s wartime writings we find this:
… it is sufficient to discover a few Jewish writers under Latinized pseudonyms for all contemporary production to be considered polluted and evil. This conception entails rather dangerous consequences... it would be a rather unflattering appreciation of western writers to reduce them to being mere imitators of a Jewish culture which is foreign to them.
De Man was saying that he wanted to rid Western literature of what he saw as pernicious and alien Jewish influences. He seems to have been especially torqued over the fact that some Jewish writers were hiding their identities, and thus their Judaism, behind pseudonyms. He believed that it was a good thing to identify such people and to denounce them, the better to rid the body of Western literature of their influence.
It is chilling to see how hagiographer Peeters describes the first meeting between Derrida and Paul de Man.
For it was also from the United States that another warm letter arrived, announcing an equally fruitful relationship: that in which Paul de Man told Derrida how much he had been “thrilled and interested” by Of Grammatology. He expected this work to help in the “clarification and progression of [his] own thinking,” something which Derrida’s Baltimore paper, and their first conversations, had already suggested. As they talked over the breakfast table at the conference the previous year, the two men had realized that they were both interested in their different ways in the Essay on the Origin of Languages. This was the origin of a friendship which became deep and enduring: after this first encounter, Derrida would say, nothing ever separated them, “not even a hint of disagreement.”
When de Man’s perfidy was revealed, Derrida rushed to defend him. He wanted to remain loyal to a friend and refused to accept that there was any connection between de Man the propagandist and de Man the Yale professor.
We leave the last word to Boston University professor Jeffrey Mehlman who stated that there were: “grounds for viewing the whole of deconstruction as a vast amnesty project for the politics of collaboration during World War II.”